Sherry is probably one of the world's most misunderstood and under appreciated fine wines. In its various guises it can be the perfect apéritif, a classic pairing with certain soups, superb accompaniment to many seafood dishes, great with a variety of charcuterie and cheeses and a beautiful dessert wine. Along with Port, Sherry is one of the world's two best fortified wines. The term fortified means that at some point in a wine's production, alcohol, usually in the form of a neutral grape brandy, is added.
In the case of Port, the alcohol is added before the fermentation is complete, stopping the fermentation and retaining a degree of natural sweetness. With Sherry, the alcohol is added after the fermentation is complete, making the wine less susceptible to spoilage during aging and, obviously, more alcoholic.
There is a lot of romance in the historical tale of Sherry production and, as with so many things romantic, some of them are true. All Sherries are made in the region of Jerez, in southern Spain. The principal grape used is Palomino, which is grown on chalky Albariza soils resulting in base wines with good fruit and average acidity. The other main but lesser used grape is Pedro Ximenez which is grown on richer, clay based soils and used for sweetening and coloring some sherries prior to bottling. The new wine made in the current vintage is called the Añada wine. This dry, moderately alcoholic wine is stored in 60 gallon American oak barrels, not completely filled, and with the stopper or "bung" not totally sealed. This allows for two unique situations to occur. One, the wine oxidizes, something that in any other wine is avoided like the plague; and two, local yeasts are able to invade the barrels, possibly resulting in a protective film of yeast called Flor. The Flor in effect prevents some of the aforementioned oxidation from occurring and adds to the particular taste and nose of these wines. I say "possibly" because not all of the barrels develop Flor. According to legend, each barrel seems to decide for itself if it will or not. If they do, their oxidation is limited, and they will develop into Fino style Sherries (one of the two broad types of Sherry). If they don't develop Flor, they will oxidize to a greater degree and become Oloroso style Sherries (the other broad type). At this point, the wines are fortified to between 15.5% alcohol for Finos (the optimum level for the formation of Flor) and 18% for Olorosos (a level which inhibits the growth of Flor).
As if all of this isn't odd enough, once it's determined what style it has become, the wine is put into what's called the Solera System. This is a system designed to insure consistent quality and style by fractionally blending younger wines with more mature examples in a controlled, systematic fashion. Each style of Sherry has its own Solera, consisting of a series of between nine to fourteen levels of barrels through which the wine will pass over a period of several years on its way to being bottled. The bottom level is called the Solera. When the winemaker wants to bottle some wine, he removes it from the Solera level, leaving about two thirds of the barrel filled. The resulting void is filled from the level of barrels directly above it, and so on up the "scale". The top level is filled with wine from the Añada. The system allows the younger wines to gain character from the older wines, while rejuvenating the old with the young; a situation seldom seen in the animal kingdom. Since all Sherries are made in this fashion, there is no such thing as vintage Sherry.
One will encounter several styles of Sherry. Fino Sherry is light, dry, pale straw in color and nutty. Manzanilla is a particular type of Fino from the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It is especially light and aromatic with a certain piquancy said to come from the propinquity of its birthplace to the sea. Amontillado is also a type of Fino, resulting when the Flor of a Fino Sherry dissipates after time, allowing a certain degree of oxidation to occur. These wines can be a real treat, rich and nutty, with a distinctive "rancio" nose of buttery almonds. They are tawny to light brown in color. Most are dry, but some are slightly sweet. All types of Fino Sherry should be served chilled. Dry Oloroso Sherries are similar to Dry Almontillados, but more so. Developing without the presence of Flor, they oxidize to a deep brown color, becoming rich, full and creamy in character, with a beautifully fragrant nose and finish. Prone to more evaporation during ageing, their concentration can be tremendous, and their alcohol content can be as high as 24%. Cream Sherries are Olorosos to which intensely sweet wines made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes have been blended. Oloroso Sherry is served at room temperature. Once opened, Fino Sherries will keep for two to three days, Olorosos will keep for about a week.
Lustau Papirusa Light Manzanilla Sherry ($11) is a nice example of its style. It is bone dry, light straw in color, with a pleasantly oxidized and slightly nutty nose. It may well be the perfect aperitif, getting ones gastric juices flowing nicely, without suppressing the appetite through sugar, carbonation or extreme cold. It's also a good match with shellfish or a smoked salmon hors d'oeuvre.
Gonzales Byass Tio Pepe Extra Dry Palomino Fino Sherry ($12) is the Fino you'll see in most restaurants. It's a good introduction to Sherry as apéritif from one of the great makers.
Sandeman Character Medium Dry Amontillado Sherry ($12) is well worth trying. It's a real eye-opener when snacking on prosciutto or manchego, and is a classic with turtle soup or pheasant consommé.
Lustau Emperatriz Eugenia Oloroso Sherry ($23) is a very nice dry Oloroso. Its nose is rich and buttery, with a pleasant hint of rancio. On the palette, it's full and smooth, with a long, evolving finish, and not at all cloying or flabby. It's slightly reminiscent of a good Cognac (at a small fraction of the cost). It would be the perfect wine to enjoy before sailing or skiing on a chilly afternoon.
Sauternes or Port not to your taste? Give Bodegas Dios Baco Cream Sherry ($15) a try. It has a very nice deep tawny color, is full, rich and sweet, and is a nice match with a sweet nut cake. Although its over-ripe fruit flavor will be a little meretricious for some, others will find in it their new favorite dessert.